In February, Kellyanne Allen, alongside her Environmental Studies 230: Introduction to Environmental Policy class, was looking at maps of air quality in the United States when the class noticed something strange — an entire state was missing.
Allen, a sophomore double-majoring in biochemistry and environmental studies, was looking at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) map of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The map shows which United States counties have worse air quality than national standards, designated as “nonattainment.”
While looking at the map, one student asked the professor, Robert Holahan, an associate professor of environmental studies, why Hawaii was not included on the map. A conversation ensued about map justice — one that ultimately led the EPA to change its own map.
“Map justice is the idea that how you display data in maps matters — ranging from the over-projection of the Northern Hemisphere to leaving Staten Island off of many New York City maps,” Holahan said.
Holahan told the class that Hawaii probably abided by all the air quality regulations, so the EPA felt it did not need to appear on a nonattainment map. But when class ended, Allen continued to think about map justice and what she could do to help Hawaii be recognized.
Eventually, she simply decided to email the EPA and ask about it.
“I used the ‘contact us’ feature on the EPA website to ask why Hawaii wasn’t on the map, and within an hour I had received a response from an employee,” Allen said.
The employee was Butch Stackhouse, an EPA mapmaker who oversees ozone information at the EPA’s headquarters. Stackhouse confirmed that since Hawaii had a perfect record, it did not need to be included. But he also wrote that he would consider adding a footnote to the next map he made.
A few weeks later, he did.
Then, on March 31, the EPA’s map looked slightly different again. The footnote on Hawaii’s clean record was gone. In its place was the actual outline of the state. Allen said showing which states are doing everything right is just as important as showing the ones that are not.
“I think it’s important to have Hawaii on the map because it provides a better representation of the data, since it’s important to acknowledge both the areas in compliance and those that are not,” Allen said. “Instead of just showing the bad, we also need to celebrate the victories of environmental regulation, no matter how small the state.”
Holahan said Allen’s small message is a perfect example of how an individual’s voice can be heard on a large scale.
“To me what this story really exemplifies is how simple comments can make a significant impact at high levels of the federal government because, while it’s easy to complain about the bureaucracy, in reality the distribution of small authorities (i.e. the EPA mapmaker has the authority to add Hawaii without needing more approval) has enormous benefits for responding to relatively simple changes,” Holahan wrote. “Bureaucracies are individuals who recognize good points and ideas when they see it, just as in any other scenario.”